Silence equals shame: Stepping into the light of my abortion

Ed. note: This is a guest post by award-winning poet, activist, and transformational leader Sonya Renee Taylor. It accompanies her video for Advocates For Youth’s 1 in 3 campaign. Check out Sonya’s full bio here.

My father called me yesterday, after stumbling upon a Facebook ad that lead him to an interview I did for the 1 in 3 Campaign. In the interview I talked for the first time very publicly about my abortion, an abortion my father never knew I had. For years, I have performed a poem called “What We Deserve,” which details the political and social realities that make legal, accessible abortion an essential human right. In the poem, I shout down Babylon with all the political fire I can muster. My anger in this poem is honest but it is not my truth. The poem is about the proverbial “them” and “their” laws on “our” bodies. The poem was never about me. “Never about me” has been a comfortable nest for years. I would have never said I was ashamed of my abortion. But I likely also would not have ever told anyone about the walk with my 5-year-old cousin to the local Family Planning Clinic for the free pregnancy test in 1997. I would not have told you about the dazed zombie walk back home after the two pink lines screamed PREGNANT in my face. How my little cousin asked, “What’s wrong Sonie?” How I replied, “Everything.”

I was a college sophmore, struggling through school, working as a waitress and already dieing under credit cards and student loan debt. I was dating Morris, a dish washer at the restaurant. We shared crack-addicted mothers, absent fathers and a desperate longing to escape.

I knew I was pregnant immediately, and my hunch was preliminarily confirmed when the dry heaving and 24 hour sickness arrived. My days were spent nauseous and horizontal on any surface I could find.

On one of those early nights of nausea, my father brought me soup at the dorms. Our relationship was virtually non-existent, but he lived nearby. Soup because I said I was sick. That memory is a rare bird. The moments I can recall being cared for by my father at any point after the age of 16 are sparse and fleeting. I cherished that bowl of soup.

But beyond that small act of care, I knew I was absolutely alone in this pregnancy. Morris was already acting distant. When I shared the official news with him, he laughed like I had shared a good joke then rushed off the phone. I was a 20 year old first generation college student born to a teenage mom and an uninvolved father. Out of my mother’s 13 siblings, only one finished high school. My father’s side of the family was solidly working class and struggling, having just lost my 21-year-old cousin to gun violence less than a year earlier, and here I was, 4 weeks into a pregnancy I did not have the economic, emotional, or energetic resources to navigate. I had so little to give a baby. I had so little to give myself. I was a nearly dry well, tasked with raising water. I knew I could not do it. 

At six weeks, I had an abortion. They showed me an ultrasound of the fetus. He…she…my never-to-be baby was a a tiny marble resting on my uterine wall. I wept for my best friend as I laid on the surgical table. She was the closest talisman I had to stability at the time and even she was 400 miles away. Morris wasn’t there either. He dropped me off at the clinic, picked me up when it was over. It was the last time we saw each other.

I went on to graduate from college, graduate school, became a poet, traveled around the world sharing art, working with mentally ill youth, HIV/AIDS efforts, and started a global movement of radical self love and body empowerment called “The Body is Not An Apology.” By most assessments my life has been lovely. Of course, the eternal question is, could I have had all of these gifts even if I had a baby, a teenager? The simple truth is, I do not know.

There is a book that held me like a new child when my mother died just a few months ago, still mired in the snares of addiction. In the book, Tiny Beautiful Things, the author Cheryl Strayed writes to a man considering whether he and his wife should have a baby, “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” Telling my truth is a salutation to that beautiful and likely brutal life I did not chose. It is me walking into the sun of the one I did. I made the wisest choice I knew to make, period. I must say that aloud. When I do I loosen a shackle of shame, for myself and for some other woman who made a similar choice.

A year ago, I wrote a poem about my abortion story entitled “Why We Hold Our Tongues.” In sharing that poem I have stepped out of the shadows of silence where shame grows wild and thick. My unapologetic ownership of that decision has returned my power, it has brought me closer to myself, closer to others.

My father called me last week after watching the interview about my abortion. He called to say sorry for his absence during those lonely and terrifying days in college. He said he loved me, asked for my forgiveness. That phone call was my father caring for me in a way I did not believe was still possible. A sweet tender bud of possibility sprouted out of the soil of my truth; but only away from the shame and silence I had held onto for so long. Perhaps that beautiful thing, like all beautiful things, had just been waiting for me to step into the light.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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